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Mark McPeek Has a Question

Thumbnail image for Mark McPeek1.jpgProfessor of Biology Mark McPeek, who has already graced Dartblog’s Guide to the Stars, writes in:

Joe, I hope you are well. A new academic year is fast approaching, and the confluence of a few events today have made me wonder what a bunch of Dartmouth faculty and alumni might suggest as the primary text for an “as yet imaginary” Big Ideas course that incoming students might have to all take together. Hence, I thought of you and Dartblog.

This morning I was reflecting on the recent failures of the ACA repeal efforts by the US House and Senate, which made me think about what I’d force every single person in those bodies to read right now. As I was in the middle of that, I responded to the annual e-mail inviting me to lead first-year orientation sessions on various topics. This will be the second year that a group of faculty will speak to students during orientation on the topic of “What is a Liberal Arts education?” Dan Rockmore also told me that his new edited volume on “What Are the Arts and Sciences?” will be sent to each incoming student. However, as I understand it, Dan’s excellent book (the chapters of which were all authored by Dartmouth faculty) will simply be given to the incoming students.

All of these made me consider what one book I would not only give each incoming student, but in fact assign for every incoming student (and perhaps every congressperson and senator) to read and discuss as part of a campus-wide course (e.g., if we had a Big Ideas course in students’ first year), if I ran this place. For example, my son just graduated from Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech asked all in his incoming class to read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” before arriving on campus, and they discussed the book as part of a campus-wide class on science, race, social policy, economic injustice, individual rights, intellectual property and ownership, and the conflicts that arise from clashes among these competing interests in students’ first semester on campus. (My understanding is that Georgia Tech chooses a different book each year.)

My choice would be Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” As I’m sure you know, this is Smith’s treatise about the roots of morality, and it defines the philosophical underpinnings of what he would go on to write about in “Wealth of Nations.” However, most people across the entire breadth of today’s political spectrum have completely lost sight of the fact that the moral foundation of capitalism, as outlined in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” is self-restraint and caring for neighbors. I think folks on both sides of today’s political chasm would be shocked to compare their own assumptions about the foundations and workings of capitalism with the true moral and philosophical underpinnings of the economic system in which we live. Smith’s basic argument is that self-restraint and caring for neighbors define “the perfection of human nature” and by extension the perfection of society. This ultimately makes selfishness a virtue because the individual’s selfish motivations are for her/his own perfection as a restrained and virtuous citizen, and in so doing one sees her/his own economic well-being as a function of the well-being of others in the larger society (remember Smith’s admonition about the roots of “the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker”). How one moves towards these goals and fosters these values is the argument to be had.

I would be very interested to hear what list your readers would suggest if each were in charge of defining the one book that they think the incoming class should read and discuss as part of a campus-wide educational experience at Dartmouth, and hear a few sentences on their rationale for their choice. Perhaps you could ask such a question on Dartblog and collate the responses? I suggest this out of pure selfishness and simply for my own curiosity, but who knows - perhaps a groundswell might build someday to put something like this into the curriculum.

Also, with all those new students coming on campus in a few weeks, they might like some intellectual suggestions for reading outside class.

In any event, I think we all would welcome some intellectual discourse on the internet these days.

Best wishes,


Sing out, dear readers.

Addendum: Readers write in:

A professor at Tuck:

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop. The book documents how Americans have self-selected into increasingly homogeneous communities, even as the country itself remains heterogeneous. Once you see the basic idea, a lot of what you see makes sense when viewed through that lens.

Honorable mentions to Bowling Alone (Robert Putnam); Letters to a Young Contrarian (Christopher Hitchens); In Defense of Elitism (William A. Henry III).

An older alumnus:

That last recommendation (In Defense of Elitism) from the Tuck professor was an excellent one. I would pair it with one by Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars (NAS): Diversity: The Invention of a Concept. Hint: it takes a slightly different angle on the topic than our dear leader and carolinclusion & deversity.

about a decade or more ago, it dawned on me that jim wright had one of those pull-strings coming out of his back, and every time it was pulled, a voice would parrot, ‘diversity, diversity.’

A recent alumnus serving in the military:

In light of the post on big ideas. I would have everyone read Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, written in 1953. Nisbet was a professor of sociology at Berkeley. Nisbet’s book is an account of modern Western society and the human desire for community and civic flourishing amidst the wreckage of the two great wars, totalitarianism, and the growing power of the centralized state. He writes: “The greatest single lesson to be drawn from the social transformations of the twentieth century, from the phenomena of individual insecurity and the mass quest for community, is that the intensity of men’s motivations toward freedom and culture is unalterably connected with the relationships of a social organization that has structural coherence and functional significance.” Also: “Economic freedom has prospered, and continues to prosper, only in areas and spheres where it has been joined to a flourishing associational life.” Nisbet connects economic, social, and moral flourishing together in a way that is suitable for any student of the liberal arts.

Another alumnus:

Joe: my suggestions:

Looking forward to what results from this idea. Thanks.

A dedicated reader:

For all students

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, original pub 1946 BUT … A zillion translations and editions including one published in 2017
For obvious reasons (see below) I like the two with intros by Rabbi Harold Kushner, that’s 2006 and 2014

(Rabbi) Harold Kushner, Nine Essential Things I Have Learned About Life
Author of bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, nearer the end of his life, distills his life experience

Matti Friedman, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War . Book discussion I lead, retired academic and NOT Jewish, wrote for publication that this is one of the best three books he’s read about war, and then he led a discussion on it for friends of his.

And for Jewish students or Christian students interested in the real Judaism and how it impacted Christianity and any other students interested in the big ideas of how to treat other human beings in this life, it’s really about how to behave in this life so that if there is an afterlife, one’s “transcript” speaks to one’s essential menschlikeit, or humanity for a general audience

Ron Wolfson, The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven: Reviewing and Renewing Your Life on Earth (yeah yeah sounds like self-help, but it isn’t, it’s about ethics and more)

Another young alumnus:

I remember being asked to read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel as an incoming freshman, with the understanding that it would be important for a lecture during Orientation. I got bored with the book, but pushed myself through to finish it, only to be quite frustrated when the lecture ended up having nothing to do with the book. The takeaway I had from that experience is that if you’re going to assign reading for incoming students, make sure that there’s programming to support it to make the students feel like the read was worth their while.

An older alumnus:

I know three books they should read:

The Fountainhead….Ayn Rand
The Constitution of Liberty…F.A. Hayek
The Radicalism of the American Revolution…Gordon S. Wood

An alumna:

I already gave What Are the Arts and Sciences to my ‘21 son. Granted, we are a geek family. He’s VERY excited and having a difficult time deciding what to study and this book has given him some perspective.

On the matter of required (or recommended) freshman reading, the ‘21’s were all sent a copy of A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe and instructed to read it before orientation week.

A happy alum:

Prof. McPeek asked for book ideas. I would suggest the poems of Robert Frost, especially “The Road Not Taken.”

Am recovering from quadruple bypass surgery. A day after I reached the hospital, a cardio surgeon said, “Technically, you were dead.” I rank these words as the most beautiful and uplifting I’ve ever heard as I had to be alive to hear them. It was an attack of arrhythmia from a previous heart attack 22 years ago. Was extremely lucky and glad I have a second chance at life.

A young alum:

I hope you’re well. As a regular reader of Dartblog, I saw the request from Professor McPeek for the book recommendation.

More than a book recommendation, I find his rationale for the “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” compelling. Not only have free markets been under constant attack since the financial crisis, but also the current responses in the world have steered towards populism and socialism. Thus, a critical discussion about the morality of free markets could be very useful for the incoming class. Free markets are a fundamental cornerstone of our civilization and embody the realization of true justice and fairness.

Nevertheless, I would be concerned whether the book would be engaging enough for the incoming class. I am quite sure some could critically engage with the book while others may still require the foundations of a liberal arts education to fully benefit from the analysis.

My recommendation would be a book which demonstrates how academic discussions can be carried out by “grown-ups” i.e. without name calling and retreating into partisanship. An introduction to academic discussions based on evidence and logical arguments. I hope this would encourage the incoming class to engage in discussions in an academic way throughout their studies and maybe the radical idea that you can disagree with someone philosophically (politically) and still cherish them as your friends.

An older alumnus:

If it’s not too late for a late entry in response to Mark McPeek’s readings solicitation, I would offer Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. (I see you already have one entry citing Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. I haven’t read that one, but I expect it’s also insightful.)

The great strength of The Righteous Mind is that (among other things) it defines a finite set of personal value dimensions that strongly determine our philosophical and political beliefs. So we are able to examine our own value structure relative to those with whom we agree or disagree politically.

And another:

I would recommend: “Ye Will Say I Am no Christian.” The Thomas Jefferson/John Adams Correspondence On Religion,Morals and Values. Edited by Bruce Braden. A fascinating back and forth between two of our founding fathers, particularly timely in today’s political environment.

And a longtime reader:

I’m a great believer in the ability of the finest books for children to touch truth and make it manifest in a way that the most scholarly, erudite works, despite their merit and value, cannot.

For students (and faculty) endlessly exhorted to repeat the mantra of diversity and inclusion, until their eyes roll back in their heads, a restorative:

The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell (1965; available in hardcover and paperback)

To me, the most profound examination possible of how to truly love the other as the other is; of what makes a family, and the nature of truth itself, in a book for the youngest but suitable, as they say, for all ages.

The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, by DuBose Heyward (author of the novel Porgy and the librettist for Porgy and Bess; 1939)

Who knew an Easter fable could demolish misogyny and racism with nary a polemic, diatribe or stern lecture in sight?

Any fully adult person who is not brought to the edge of tears or a voice-stopping thickened throat by the last pages of these books is, I declare with head-shaking sorrow, a person so stone-hearted that we can only shake our heads in wonder that a pulse therein may be detected or respiration observed.

But sentiment is not the object here. Truth is, and prose as we might hope the young are, somewhere, still taught to write.

Addendum: My take on Professor McPeek’s question shies away from the social sciences. I’d recommend E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. Beyond being a celebration of romantic love — some of the most glorious writing on the subject in my experience, and a topic that undergraduates need to think about more — the book has as its main theme the wrestling with and breaking free from social convention. Dartmouth is easily as ridden with unspoken social rules as was Forster’s Victorian England. If students would work harder on their inner lives, they would be both happier and better equipped to solve the world’s problems.

Mark McPeek Responds:

Just as I anticipated: a collection of excellent recommendations across a range of perspectives. I have a lot more reading to do. Also, given a few conversations I’ve had about this off-line, perhaps this might spark some reevaluation of educational goals both across disciplinary boundaries in the first year of a student’s time here and within majors once they get going full steam.


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